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Press Freedom Under Siege: The Jailing of a Kashmiri Journalist in India

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The Pulse

Press Freedom Under Siege: The Jailing of a Kashmiri Journalist in India

In Kashmir, freedom of expression and the press are under attack by the Indian government.

Press Freedom Under Siege: The Jailing of a Kashmiri Journalist in India
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Sitting in his office overlooking the Jhelum river that careens through Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir, Showkat Motta, the editor of the monthly magazine Kashmir Narrator, is busy arranging bundles of fresh printouts on his desk. Motta isn’t preparing for the next issue of the magazine; he is, in fact, busy reading case files of his reporter who was arrested by police recently. “This is what they want,” he bursts out before explaining. “We haven’t had an issue hit the stands in the last four months. It’s difficult to perform our journalistic duties diligently in such an atmosphere.”

On August 31, 2018, police announced in a press release the arrest of Asif Sultan, accusing him of “harboring known terrorists.” The 30-year-old journalist from Srinagar’s Batamaloo area was booked under various sections of the Ranbir Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), an Indian anti-terror law that has been criticized across the country for putting curbs on the freedom of expression.

A month later, a court denied his bail application after police claimed to have found “incrimination material” in his possession. Police say they had received “substantial leads” from two “over ground workers” (OGWs) — a term used to describe non-combatants working for militants — acting upon which they raided Asif’s house. “We have recovered a letter pad belonging to the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group from him,” a senior police official privy to the case said, on the condition of anonymity. “We believe he was in contact with a known militant from Kulgam district.” The official added that the police will file charges against Asif within a month. Under UAPA, police have six months following the arrest to file charges.

Motta and Asif’s family refuted all allegations against him. Motta says police had wrongfully indicted Asif to “intimidate him and other journalists working in the valley.” He and Asif’s family members allege that Asif was detained five days before police officially claimed his arrest. “He was kept in illegal detention and asked questions about the books he was reading. They asked him questions about his ideology. They had also questioned him about his stories that had been published recently. And now they claim to have found a Hizb letter pad from him. Who keeps a notebook these days when you can just print it?” asked Motta, who has met his reporter, currently incarcerated at the Srinagar Central jail, several times over the last four months.

Detention and Arrest

On August 27, 2018, Mohammad Sultan was getting ready for bed when a sudden thud on the door rose him to attention. As he looked out from a window, he was surprised to see that around 60 members of paramilitary forces and police had cordoned off his two-story house in Batamaloo. Two officers standing on his front porch ordered him to open the door. Reluctantly, as he did, the men in uniform began to swarm in. He was told that they were looking for his son, Asif.

“From 11 p.m. to almost 2 a.m., they went from room to room ransacking the house while my entire family including Asif’s wife and eight-month-old daughter stood there circled by police officials,” said the 64-year-old father. After the search was complete, he added, police detained Asif and took away his laptop, mobile phones, books, and journals. Cellphones belonging Asif’s wife and elder brother were also seized. Sultan went on to accuse the police of operating without a warrant and not explaining the need for the sudden intrusion into their house at the odd hour.

“They (the police) told me Asif was being taken to the nearby Batamaloo police station for questioning and would be sent back in the morning,” he added, “They said there is no problem.”  The following morning, Sultan and Motta visited him at the police station. “When I spoke to the Station House Officer (SHO), he told us that they will keep Asif in for further questioning for another night. Meanwhile, I was asked questions about the beat Asif covers for the magazine and the stories he had done for us,” Motta said. Four days after Asif’s detention, Sultan was asked to sign Asif’s release papers at the police station, but they refused to release him. He was again called to the police station the next day, this time he was asked to sign Asif’s arrest warrant but he refused to do so.

Sultan, a retired employee with the largest government-run hospital in the valley also alleged that his son was assaulted in custody by police officials. He said on the day Asif appeared in court for his bail application wearing a t-shirt that read “journalism is not a crime,” he was assaulted by police officials. “They got angry seeing the t-shirt and slapped him. Later they took it away from him,” he added.

The Case

Police have maintained that Asif’s writings had nothing to do with his arrest, and it was only because of strong evidence of his involvement in “militant-related activities.” “We have evidence against him, both in digital and physical form. When the time comes, we’ll produce it in the court,” the official said.

Not far from Asif’s house in Batamaloo, a shootout between government forces and militants had taken place on August 12, a few weeks before Asif’s detention. A policeman was killed in the gunfight, while three militants holed up in a civilian house managed to escape. Police filed a case and arrested the house owner, a reformed-militant. “We arrested the house owner and he led us to a woman based in North Kashmir, who was in touch with several militants and their OGWs. During questioning, she gave us Asif’s name, following which we took action. We have also recovered a receipt of purchases made in Asif’s name from a house where we believe militants had been sheltered,” the official said.

Motta, however, dismissed police’s version as “nonsense.” He asked if Asif’s writing was not the reason for his arrest then why did the police present his Facebook account as prima facie evidence in the application to deny him bail. “In the application, without specifying any particular post, police have said Asif’s Facebook activity establishes his association with Hizb. And he was using it to propagate their ideology,” he continued while removing a neatly kept folder carrying all the stories done by Asif from a drawer next to him. The official refused to comment on why Asif’s Facebook had been highlighted as evidence. The account is now disabled.

Curbs on Press

Since the death of popular militant commander Burhan Wani in a 2016 shootout with Indian government forces, armed militancy in the disputed region has witnessed a new resurgence. In response, the Indian government has multiplied its anti-insurgency operations. In its first-ever report on the situation in Kashmir issued last year, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights detailed the alleged human rights violations. According to the 49-page report, Indian security forces have used excessive force leading to high civilian deaths and injuries since 2016. The report also called out the restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and reprisals against human rights defenders and journalists imposed by the Indian government in the Himalayan region.

Leading up to the second death anniversary of Wani in July, Asif had written a story titled “The Rise of Burhan” for the magazine. It was a deep dive piece encapsulating the rise of a 15-year-old boy from a small village in South Kashmir to one of the most revered militant commanders in the three-decade-long insurgency in Kashmir, by the time he was killed on July 8, 2018 at the age of 21. Asif had interviewed multiple OGWs that had worked with Wani prior to his death but had cut-off connections with armed militants afterwards, to piece together the persona of Wani, who was revered even among his rebel peers. Such reporting, said Motta, is not viewed positively by the “state” in Kashmir.

Days after Asif’s piece was published, Motta received an email from a Gmail account signed off by “Media cell/CID J&K” (The acronym CID stands for Criminal Investigation Department). “It raised several queries to the stories written by Asif and another journalist with the magazine. The email raised objections like why we chose to write about militancy and what effect it could have on the LoC. It accused us of creating ‘ideological activists,’ besides raising objections to certain words and phrases,” Motta said.

Multiple organizations of journalists and media watchdogs have questioned Asif’s detention and arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent organization which advocates for press freedom worldwide, called for Asif’s immediate release. Steven Butler, the group’s Asia program coordinator, wrote in a letter to Governor Satya Pal Malik on January 15 that it is within the scope of a journalists’ job to interview or have sources who are critical of the government. “Reporting on an important and newsworthy story such as the conflict in Kashmir is a public service, not a criminal act,” the letter reads.